A calm, disembodied voice emanated from a computer in Katherine Grykien's dimly lit fifth-grade classroom in Burlington's Champlain Elementary School.
"Breathe in and straighten your back. Breathe out and settle your body," the voice instructed. Twenty-two students sat cross-legged on the floor and followed along, their eyes closed, their hands resting in their laps.
Next, a different voice took over and led the kids in a listening exercise. The students were asked to turn their heads in the direction of any sounds they heard, sending their attention toward them. Then the computer told them to relax and let the sounds come to them, stretching out their palms "to welcome them."
"Normally, what I do when I hear a distracting sound is try to ignore it," Charlie McConnell, one of Grykien's fifth graders, explained after the lesson. "I think today I'm going to listen to it and then let it go."
The lesson, which provided five minutes of relaxation before the busy school day got under way, was part of a computerized curriculum called Modern Mindfulness. Grykien learned about it last year at a two-day training with the Center for Mindful Learning, a Burlington-based nonprofit.
Mindfulness refers to a series of practices that lead to focused, relaxed attention, said Lindsay Foreman, CML's program director. At school, these practices can help students deal with social and emotional aspects of learning, such as dealing with stress, getting along with others, building confidence and staying engaged.
Grykien said she is impressed with the way her class has internalized the mindfulness exercises they've been practicing since September. "I see the students taking deep breaths during a test. I hear them giving kind, encouraging words to each other,"she said. "They tell stories about how it helps them with relationships, not only at school, but at home and with friends, too."
Two years ago, CML received a grant to develop software to implement mindfulness education in schools. For six months, CML piloted a program at the Smilie Memorial School in Bolton, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade.
The resulting curriculum consists of nine weeklong lessons with video and audio components focusing on topics from relaxation to achieving happiness. Modern Mindfulness also encourages teachers to put their own creative spin on the material and classroom discussion.
"A big role of the teacher is to think about the lessons and pepper them throughout the day when there's an opportunity to talk about mindfulness," said Foreman.
The pilot program at Smilie, she added, had positive effects school-wide: After six months, disciplinary referrals to the principal decreased by 50 percent, and students made gains in setting goals, listening and relaxing.
The curriculum is catching on throughout the state. Over the last two years, about 80 Vermont elementary, middle and high school teachers have gone through CML's mindfulness training.
At Winooski's JFK Elementary School, 16 teachers use the Modern Mindfulness software in their classrooms. Stefanie Hamble's fifth-grade class does a five-minute lesson after math each day. The lessons may be short, but Hamble said they help to center and relax the class.
Her students agreed. "In recess, when we were playing in a big group, I was kind of getting mad at people," fifth grader Yatrika Dhamala recalled. "I took a deep breath and calmed down."
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